It’s Thursday. At midday today, I was looking after my class of six-year-olds as they sat silently for two minutes, in memory of those who died or lost loved ones in the London bombs on 7th July. Their strange silence over, they scrambled with their usual enthusiasm to get into the queue for lunch.
This time of year is always quite emotional for teachers, as they prepare to send their children on the next stage of their lives, hoping that they will continue to thrive, and that they will enjoy life to the full. This year seems to me to be more than usually poignant. The events of the last couple of weeks seem to hold the promise of the best of things – and also, possibly, the threat of the worst.
The London bombings have to be looked at in a wider context. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The explosions on the underground were sandwiched between London’s winning Olympic bid and the commemoration of the end of the second World War. The sounds of the Live8 concerts and the deliberations of the G8 conference were still echoing around us. Looking further back, many of us remember marching against the Iraq war in 2003 – and we wonder whether President Bush might reconsider his conviction that fighting terrorism abroad protects us from terrorism on our own soil.
We are also recalling the tenth anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica – surely the most shameful failure of our international community in living memory. (We should remember that the most powerful countries in Europe failed to prevent the annihilation of 8,000 Muslims.)
One of the themes running through our Olympic Games bid was the success of London as a multicultural city. Our capital demonstrates quite vividly that people of different faiths and ethnic origins can happily coexist. Looking through the lists of the victims of 7th July bombs, I was struck by two things. First, the youth of those who died – so many seemed to be in their twenties and thirties. Second, and more striking, was their ethnic diversity. Yes, there were some common or garden British names – but there were names from China and Italy, from Poland and Albania, from Asia, the near east, Malaysia …
The Koran tells us that we were made into different peoples not that we might despise each other, but that we might understand each other. Which means that if we want to pigeonhole bin Laden as a typical Muslim, we should also be prepared to accept General Mladic, the leader of the Serbian forces at Srebrinica, as a typical Christian.
Bin Laden, of course, is a monster created by the west – by the US in particular. The CIA armed him, and the Saudis funded him to fight the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Russia dealt with, bin Laden turned his attention to the west – a development which seems to have taken America completely by surprise.
So what kind of future will we bequeath to my class and their generation?
It seems to me that if we continue to think of the struggle against terrorism as a battle which can be won by military means, we are bound to fail. The more we emphasise confrontation, the more we underline what divides us from the Muslim world. We can only win this war by isolating the terrorists – by denying them the support and resources they need. And we can only do that by focusing on the common ground we share with the Muslim world. This means that we need to use a forum like the G8 conference to let the rest of the world know that we are all in this together – that we will fight terrorist acts resolutely.
We also have to let the rest of the world know that we are inclusive – none of the G8 nations is predominantly Muslim, nor are their invited guests, like Brazil, China and India. We need to include those nations whose poverty is such a fertile breeding ground for terrorism, where fundamentalism offers a sense of identity to those who feel disempowered and dispossessed (an appeal which evidently extends to citizens of the UK).
In the end, we will surely find that a war on poverty will give us more security than a war on terror. We have to show that our values – tolerance, freedom, generosity – will prevail over the values of the bombers and their masters.